Despite his association with Congress, that much-maligned institution, U.S. Rep. Jim Himes, D-4, still was accorded a robust round of applause Wednesday when he was introduced during a Q&A session with Staples High School students.
"Thank you for that round of applause," Himes quipped. "Congress has something like an 11 percent approval rating. I'm doing better in this room than I am doing nationally."
Himes came to Staples to discuss his work as a U.S. representative with about 100 pupils who take the Advanced Placement Government class. During the forum, Himes addressed the unpopularity of Congress, the partisan rancor that dominates legislative proceedings in Washington, D.C., and some of the top issues facing federal legislators during the 113th session of Congress.
A resident of Greenwich's Cos Cob section, Himes has just begun his third term following his resounding victory over his Republican opponent, Westporter Steve Obsitnik, in the November election.
The Democrat said the peaceful manifestations of discontent with federal lawmakers in recent years demonstrated the strength of the country's governing framework.
"I am thrilled with the system that said we're going to channel this popular anger not into Molotov cocktails and bricks being thrown on the streets of America, but into a change in control of the House of Representatives," he said. "It's an amazing thing and it's messy."
The intense partisanship in Washington, D.C., in recent years has grown out of widespread distress about the nation's worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, Himes argued.
"The part of the government I serve in, the House of Representatives, was set up to channel that anger," he said. "When you hear people talk about how particularly in the House of Representatives things are so divided and they're so aggressive and they're so impolite, guess what? That's because today the American people feel a little bit that way."
While he acknowledged the deep divisions along party lines in Congress, Himes also complimented some Republicans, such as Speaker of the House John Boehner.
"We don't agree on a lot," Himes said. "But I have a lot of respect for John Boehner for the following reason, which is when the sun goes down, he rolls up his sleeves, comes to the table and compromises."
Himes fielded questions from students, including a query about the bruising deliberations in Congress that two weeks ago finally yielded a deal that averted a "fiscal cliff" of major new tax increases and spending cuts.
"The final debates on the fiscal cliff, I would divide them into two categories: Very, very good days and very, very bad days," Himes said. "Unfortunately, the very, very bad days are the ones we see all too often on television."
Members of Congress are now gearing up for a new battle over raising the national debt ceiling again. Himes expressed his support for both increasing the debt limit and eventually doing away with it.
"The debt ceiling is frankly an obscenity," he said. "I'm not saying we shouldn't control our debt -- for a Democrat, I say that a lot. The president said it pretty well the other day when he said that we're not going to have arguments over whether America pays the bills to which it's already signed up to pay. This idea that we have a debt ceiling is a little silly; it's like deciding not to pay your credit card bill at the end of the month."
Himes was much less bullish about the prospect of Congress passing new gun-control legislation in response to the shootings last month at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. He reiterated, however, his support for a new federal assault weapons ban.
"Nobody has ever convinced me that there is a need for Americans to have the right to what is essentially military-grade weaponry," he said. "I've done enough shooting to know that you don't need a 30-round clip for hunting. And if you think you're going to protect people with a 30-round clip in a movie theater, a parking lot, or in your home -- you really ought to rethink that."
Himes' talk appeared to be well-received by students, with many of them lining up to talk one-on-one with him after the Q&A session finished.
"It was great," said junior Diego Alanis. "I was sitting next to my teacher and we were laughing because everything he said is somehow connected to the class. It was pretty amazing."
Himes' appearance Wednesday at Staples was organized after Alanis responded to a "half tongue-in-cheek challenge" by his AP Government teacher, John Miller, to bring the congressman to the high school. Alanis then emailed an invitation to Himes' office and soon received a response accepting the offer.
AP Government teachers also welcomed Himes' visit.
"I think it's great because they just finished their unit on Congress," said Suzanne Kammerman. "The textbook is going to teach them how a bill becomes a law, but, in essence, how it really happens is what the congressman can share with the students. It's great to get the viewpoint of a member of Congress."
In an interview with the Westport News after the meeting, Himes discussed his goals as a member of the "Problem Solvers" group launched by No Labels, a bipartisan grassroots organization.
"I've been very happy to be pretty closely associated with them because they are looking for a way to empower the quiet and scared center," Himes added. "Making Congress a less polarized place is like turning around an aircraft carrier. It's going to take a lot of pushing and incremental positive change and No Labels is right at the core of that."
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